Monday, 20 January 2020

Environment Monday - What can we learn from Australia and the bush fire crisis

One of the worlds biggest stories of the last month has been the Australian bush fires. I have a special connection with Australia as my Dad was an Aussie. He was born near Blackall, Queensland in 1917 (a free pot noodle for the first person to find it on a map). His father was an engineer working boring artesian wells in the outback. The main industries were mining and farming and water was the most precious commodity of all. Around 1920 the family were living in Yaraka, at the end of a train line in central Queensland is on Coopers Creek. At the time, the town had a population of around 100.  My father told me that he was four years old before he saw rain, there was a huge drought at the time of his birth. He told how he was awoken by his dog madly barking. When he emerged, he was amazed to see that the dirt track running through the town was now a massive expanse of water. Within days, the outback, which had been arid and dry and completely bereft of vegetation, was a blaze of glorious colour. Many of the dwellings erected by settlers were flooded in the deluge. As my grandfather was an engineer, he had sensibly looked for where the signs of erosion and water deposits had ended an built on land high enough to avoid the water. The ending of the drought transformed the local economy. When my aunt Hazel died, I was amazed to read that  the first bath she had was when she was in her 40's and moved to Townsville. Previously in the outback, water was too precious to waste. These were the stories I grew up with. To me, living in London, where water was on tap, it seemed strange beyond belief. It did however give  me an insight into the importance of understanding nature, the importance of natural resources and that we should not take such resources for granted.

My Aussie cousins are very divided on their views on matters of environment. Some absolutely believe that global warming is nonsense and all we are seeing is the natural cycle of the earths climate. Others take the diametrically opposed view and see Australia on the edge of a precipice of environmental doom. The fires have, if anything, made this divide worse. Those who see climate change as a threat see the fires as proof of their arguments. Those that do not accept the science of climate change simply see it as something that has been happening in Australia since the start of history. They quote the drought my father spoke of as evidence that this has all been seen before. They see many of the arguments of environmental campaigners as simply an attack on the traditional economy of Australia. They post pictures of charging points for electric cars attached to diesel generators on facebook as evidence of the nonsense of the green argument. Many feel that green energy policies have directly damaged their standard of living and further threaten their livelihood and their traditional way of outback life.

It is clear to me that there are massive vested interests in Australia that are spending huge amounts of money influencing the population to support mining and the oil industry. It is also clear to me that those championing green arguments are not making their case in a way that demonstrates that it is in the interest of the ordinary Aussie. The one thing that I've been aware of since the first day I opened my eyes is that Australians are not partial to BS. Many of my fathers stories from the second world war involved Aussie air crew standing up to the RAF officer class who were not telling them the truth about what was going on. Crews often took matters into their own hands, not flying missions according to the orders, but flying in a way that completed the operation and gave them a better chance of coming home. I see that same stubborn streak in my cousins who see the whole issue of the green agenda as a huge con job to bankrupt them and ruin Australia.  What infuriates them even more is they see the other side view them as thick and out of touch. This is perhaps the biggest Achilles heal of what we call progressive politics. Many on the left believe that they are morally and intellectually superior to those  that disagree with them. For many ordinary people who are non political, this is a massive turn off. Just as it has entrenched the ordinary Aussies in opposition to the green agenda, we saw the demolition of the 'Red Wall' in the 2019 election because ordinary working class voters had enough of Islington Labour and its condescending view towards them. The sheer snobbishness in many comments about Labour leadership contender Jesse Phillips shows just how alive and well this air of patronising superiority runs. If I was a Labour member I wouldn't vote for Phillips, but the campaign against her is appalling. She  represents a strand of the party that needs to be engaged if Labour is ever to win another election.

The exact same thing has happened in Aussie politics. The working classes who traditionally have supported the Aussie Labour party have fallen out of love with the politicians it has delivered. The logical conclusion of this process is sadly Donald Trump style politicians. What we see with Trump is voters connecting with a politician who speaks their language and understands their mindset. They recognise him as a man who reflects their concerns and views. A man who doesn't lecture them and who doesn't hector them. The messages are simple. Look after no 1 and don't give a stuff about the consequences. When we hear "Make America great again", the subtext is that the rest of the world can screw itself if it doesn't like what the US has to say. For many working class Amaericans that is just what they want to hear. There was a fascinating article in the Sunday Times yesterday, detailing how the US top generals tried to get Trump onside with their policies and Trump responded by calling them all idiots and saying that none of them were capable of winning a war. The graphs, bar charts and experts simply bored Trump and he felt the need to show them who was in charge.

The ordinary voter connects with Trumps response. The same is true for many ordinary Aussies. Pauline Hanson, who set up the right wing One Nation party is perhaps the best example. Hanson has claimed that climate change is not a man made phenomenon. She is a staunch supporter of the Australian mining and coal industries and for many ordinary Aussies, she is the only politician who speaks their language. The more the left ridicules her, the more ordinary Aussie voters feel that she must be right.

The challenge for the Left/Centre left across the world is that they have lost touch with the people who they should be representing. Unless the parties that are meant to represent the ordinary working people can reconnect, there is little chance of substantive changes needed to try and address the climate crisis. This cannot be done by lecturing the working classes or treating them like idiots. This can only be done by ensuring that the policies deliver real benefits for them and address their concerns and issues. In the UK just as in Australia, many rural communities and towns away from the major centres of population and wealth are ignored and left to rot. In the UK in  the 1960's, the Beeching rail closure programme removed railways from hundreds of towns, villages and communities. Short lived 'replacement bus services' were supposed to fill the gap, but there was no real effort to understand the effects of these closures on the communities affected. It is fascinating how both rail nationalisation and privatisation have completely failed to deliver for ordinary people, BR closed many much needed lines and privatisation has made it hellishly expensive. This demonstrates to me that neither of the main parties really have the solutions.

There are some major lessons that the UK needs to learn from the bush fire crisis. Whilst our weather means that such devastation is unlikely here, we are not immune from the effects. The first lesson is that when you neglect important things in society, bad things happen. In Australia, it is clear that not enough money was spent on preparation for fires. In the UK, there are clear threats to our society caused by neglect of our infrastructure. Fixing this will improve the country and improve our quality of life. This must be done in a sustainable way. We desperately need to start developing practical, science based solutions to issues such as global warming, pollution and bad air quality. If we start to invest in these technologies, we will become the leaders in these fields and the UK will see the economic benefit.

Having such a long term plan works. The evidence is there for all to see. In the 1960's the UK built all of the locomotives on its railways. Sadly under BR, the government starved the industry of investment. At the same time, the Japanese, French, Germans and Italians spent huge sums on developing their industry. The UK is now, after many decades, refreshing the rolling stock on our rail networks and virtually all of the trains have been developed in these countries. They are reaping the benefits of spending hard cash on building industries fit for the new century. We never seem to learn this lesson. All investments in the UK are driven by short term gain on the stock market. We have no real plan for our railways, driven by a coherent national plan. Likewise, we have no coherent plan to decarbonise energy production, clean up the air in our cities, address pollution and litter and make our schools, hospitals and councils fit for purpose.

What we should have is a Royal Commission set up to deliver a UK economy fit for the 21st century. I believe that good, clean transport links should be at the heart of this. We should build our transport networks around the hubs we need to use. As an example,  I thought I'd see how easy it was to get from my house in Mill Hill to Barnet General hospital, our nearest A&E

DepartMill Hill Broadway Station - Boarding at Stop D at 11:59via240 bus or 221 bus to Cloister Gardens
240 bus or 221 bus to Cloister Gardens
Journey time:
4 min
Step 2
DepartCloister Gardens - Boarding at Stop B at 12:09via292 bus to Stirling Corner / Barnet Lane
292 bus to Stirling Corner / Barnet Lane
Journey time:
8 min
Step 3
DepartStirling Corner - Boarding at Stop B at 12:30via107 bus to Barnet Hospital / Queens Road
107 bus to Barnet Hospital / Queens Road
Journey time:
7 min
Step 4
DepartBarnet Hospital / Queens Road at 12:37viaWalk to 1 Wellhouse Lane, Arkley
Walk to 1 Wellhouse Lane, Arkley
Journey time:
7 min
Arrive at1 Wellhouse Lane, Arkley at 12:441 Wellhouse Lane, Arkley

As you can see, the journey involves three buses. As this is a journey most Mill Hill residents would have to make at some point, this is clearly ridiculous. From  a green perspective, all of these involve a diesel driven bus. The tragedy is that in 1964, a perfectly good railway was pulled up that would link Edgware and Mill Hill Broadway with the Barnet branch of the Northern line and make this journey far easier. Had this been added to the tube network as planned before the war, then the journey would be made by an electric train. Interestingly, the town of Yaraka mentioned above also lost it's railway line. The town now only has 13 residents. It seems that the local councils there asked for a new road and this was funded by the closure of the line, so it's not just the UK where rail infrastructure is abandonded.

Ultimately, we will only address global warming and bad air quality when we start to address these sort of things. If the Mill Hill East - Edgware line was reinstated then there would be four  major benefits. Better air quality as less diesel buses needed, less greenhouse gases as electricity can be produced from renewable sources and a quicker journey across the Borough. It may also result in less people needing Barnet General for breathing issues etc. There was a proposal for this, called the "Brent Cross Light railway" which would have linked Finchley Central to Brent Cross and beyond. Sady, no one in Barnet Council had the vision to see the benefits of this proposal. The truth is that we need hundreds of schemes like this to start to make a difference. My view is that we should start in areas of greatest need, such as those with deprivation and bad air quality. As the BCLR would run through Graham Park, it would certainly tick that box. Light rail schemes certainly seem to me the way to go. Personally, I'd like to see hydrogen cell powered trams considered, as these are clean and do not require the metalwork and costs of electric cables.

There other low cost schemes that could also help the appalling air quality in the Borough of Barnet. I'd like to see the planing of shrubs on the edges of the A1, A41 and M1, which have been proven to remove particulates. In Cricklewood a new aggregates hub has had huge sound baffles fitted. I'd like to see these fitted all along the M1 between Mill Hill and Staples Corner. These could also be fitted with Solar panels to deliver a massive amount of energy. This would dissipate the noise from the roads, delivering a far better environment for local residents.

As such schemes would deliver practical benefits for residents, I believe that they would be supported by local people and there would be no need to hector or lecture residents, in the way that has so turned off my Aussie cousins.

My mantra has long been "think globally, act locally".

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